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Palmyra CON approval reversed

ALBANY, Ga. -- On Jan. 19, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and Phoebe Sumter Medical Center filed petitions for judicial review against Palmyra Medical Center and the Georgia Department of Community Health regarding the state's final order empowering Palmyra to offer Level 1 perinatal service.

That battle is still ongoing.

A week ago, Southwestern Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge George Peagler in Sumter County reversed in part and affirmed in part the final order.

Peagler reversed four of seven grounds, ruling that DCH made errors when granting the application. He ruled that the state's approval of the application severely hampered Phoebe Sumter's ability to rebuild following the 2007 tornado, at which time medical facilities were lost and medical staff left the area.

"There is no basis for DCH's finding that Palmyra's proposed OB service will have a positive relationship to the existing health care delivery system in the service area," the judge said in his findings. "... The DCH Final Order disregards the adverse effect that Palmyra's proposed new perinatal service is likely to have on Sumter Regional's efforts to recruit and retain physicians as part of its rebuilding efforts.

"DCH erred in disregarding undisputed evidence as to the negative effects of Palmyra's project on Sumter Regional's restaffing efforts, especially considering the area's physician shortages."

Peagler also said that DCH had misinterpreted the law when granting the Certificate of Need.

"Administrative agencies lack the constitutional authority to legislate and are forbidden from enlarging the scope of a statute, from adding words omitted from the statute, or from changing a statute by interpretation," his review read.

Phoebe officials had maintained that granting approval to Palmyra's application would create more competition for the Americus hospital to attract physicians while trying to rebuild the facility, as well as its health care programs, which includes obstetrics.

"This decision is monumental for us in this community," said Phoebe Sumter CEO Keith Petersen in a statement. "Our board has maintained the Department of Community Health did not follow the rules and Judge Peagler agreed. We commend him for a well-reasoned decision that speaks to fairness and common sense."

Officials at Palmyra are maintaining that the existence of a second obstetrical provider is essential in the era of health care reform, and that they have the ability to offer a high-quality program at a lower cost.

"It was clear the judge was concerned about rebuilding Sumter Regional after the tornado," a statement sent by Hospital Spokesman Eric Riggle said. "However, the Department of Community Health found and Palmyra believes that its obstetrical services program will not adversely affect Sumter's staffing or physician recruiting."

The next step is to wait for a decision from Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Stephen Goss, which is expected to come late next week.

The DCH issued its final order on Dec. 18, 2009, to allow Palmyra to offer obstetrical services to patients in a 10-county area, including Sumter and Dougherty. The CON for basic perinatal services was filed August 2008. The DCH approved the application the following January, a decision which Phoebe appealed a month later.

In October 2009, DCH Hearing Officer Ellwood Oakley III affirmed the CON. Phoebe filed the petition in superior court after DCH Commissioner

Dr. Rhoda Medows affirmed Oakley's decision in December.